I forgot my camera. I was indignant until I remembered I’d never owned a camera until a few years ago. All hike records were scratched with a stubby pencil on a 3×5 card.
We went off-trail in the Malpaís. Snow and wind and frost-heaving had smoothed sand over the face of the weathered stone, healing the skin of the desert until we were the first ever to walk there.
Camera or not, it was a good day, though I wish I could have gotten an image of an old friend. Fortunately I already had one; it was taken in a different season, but you get the idea.
In an area we’ve hiked scores of times, looking for a place for lunch, we climbed a little mesa that promised a good view. On a smooth sandstone ledge, unexpected, was a bedrock metate: the roughly-pecked surface where a woman had ground corn or wild-gathered seeds.
Around it were rough petroglyphs of a lizard and snakes: probably Puebloan, but so heavily coated with desert varnish that they looked Archaic. It was fine to sit where she had sat, looking out over the late winter piñon and sand, munching corn chips we had not had to grind ourselves.
Two of us and a dog were scrounging along the talus slope, looking for petroglyphs, when my companion said urgently, “Come quick!”
Peering out of a vertical crack in the cliff about ten feet up was a fox-faced ringtail cat. Huge, lemur-like sad eyes, big bat ears, a bushed-out tail that seemed to float behind it. Bold, totally silent. It crept out of the crack and down toward us, examined us thoroughly, then slipped away into the rocks and brush.
It was like an apparition but domestic, like a fox spirit. Quite unafraid of us. The dog, transfixed, did not bark.
We walked in over multicolored gravels eroded from some long-lost range. Some were petrified wood, glossy and tumble-polished. Among them a second generation of trees had grown; these too had fossilized, then eroded, and now looked simply like wood chips inexplicably turned to stone. Among them the ponderosas of today stood, living wood.
Next to a dissolving petrified log, recent woodcutters had left their beer cans and pile of slash. Old woodpile, new woodpile: the two looked remarkably alike, though the ancient one was yellow and bright as new wood, and the new one was gray.
All day long we looked south to the main drainage. It shone silver.
We spent the day traipsing around and about in something like a square mile and a half, as much vertical as horizontal, on constantly rough terrain. We entered and left on ancient trails not used since the invention of the internal combustion engine.
I couldn’t see how even a wagon could have gone where we did. Perhaps it was just people on foot. Later, horses or mules.
The trails did feel like trails, in the sense of “the logically easiest way to get up this challenging slope.”
My own painted desert. My New Mexico earth.
Paintings now at Matteucci Gallery in Santa Fe and the Taos Fine Art Gallery on Kit Carson Road in Taos. Here’s the Matteucci link:
In a way, they’re small distillations of all these hikes. When you’re in Santa Fe or Taos, please stop by the galleries and enjoy them!
Heavy logging in these mountains in the Twenties. Many trees were felled and left to checker into soft, rotten punk.
One enormous, old-growth Ponderosa had been spared the clear-cut because its trunk had split and split and split again, so it wouldn’t make straight lumber—perhaps a genetic trait? A beautiful and noble tree. I laid my face against it. It felt a living being, as though I could sense the subtle movement of xylem and phloem.
Maybe I could.
Zuni Mountains, the historical logging railroad route.
Impossible to drive it without imagining the hills as they were: clearcut, scalped naked. The subsequently-eroded red Abó dirt has young trees on it now, but here and there you can spot a patriarch the loggers missed or spared. Human presence of that era is all over: rusty cans, purple glass, busted cheap commercial china. A rusted shovel. Disintegrating ponderosa trunks, felled and abandoned, scattered like pick-up-sticks.
We climbed a red hill of Abó sandstone. En route, found a pair of (modern) safety goggles, an unopened can of Mexican beer, and a mother nighthawk so intent on distracting us from her nest that she rolled around with her feet in the air.
A spring in a big rincón, westward-facing. Water, with help from prevailing winds, had carved out an arching cave in the sandstone perhaps 30 feet high. Its ceiling was dotted with grapefruit-size nests of cliff swallows. The birds flew over us, alarmed and crying.
On the arch is a Navajo “star ceiling,” probably Cassiopeia. Look for the stars, red ochre Xes. Then look more closely: there are faint, perhaps earlier black stars as well.